The Biden White House, plagued by low approval ratings that have weakened the president’s clout and raised fears among Democrats over next year’s midterms, is blaming the media for some of its problems.
Administration officials are increasingly pointing the finger at the press, saying news organizations are unfairly covering the White House and contributing to Biden’s tenuous public standing nearly a year into his presidency.
Multiple White House officials recently shared a Washington Post column published with the headline: “The media treats Biden as badly as — or worse than — Trump. Here’s proof.”
The opinion piece, written by Dana Milbank, cited findings from an artificial intelligence software’s analysis of more than 200,000 articles from 65 different outlets that determined coverage of Biden has been as bad for the last few months as that of former President Trump during the same time frame in 2020.
Biden administration officials also pushed back earlier in the week in response to a “West Wing Playbook” item in Politico that described Vice President Harris’ preference to use traditional wired headphones instead of bluetooth devices over fears that the latest technology could come with certain security risks.
“The intrepid, substantive reporting on @VP continues,” White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher wrote on Twitter, attaching a photo of the newsletter along with his snark.
“Chris – didn’t you hear? This is what people all over the country really care about and want to know,” responded Symone Sanders, Harris’ outgoing press secretary, who is stepping down amid a rash of stories about discord in the vice president’s office.
On Thursday, more than five dozen liberal groups sent a letter to key media stakeholders urging more balanced coverage of the 46th president. In it, organizations condemned what they consider the “pervasive pattern of under-reporting and negative bias toward the actions and agenda of this administration.”
“Please consider and swiftly address your role in promoting this widespread, destructive pattern of reporting,” the letter states. “Not only is it doing harm to our democracy, but it is also harming your reputation as journalists and that of the news outlets you represent.”
Interviews with top media critics, strategists, and White House officials reveal that an increasingly adversarial dynamic does indeed seem to be developing between the Biden administration and the free press.
That progression is prompting observers to hypothesize about the cause for such a shift in the two camps’ existing relationship.
“This type of pushback is more frequent and more visible now because the news cycle has gotten a lot worse for Biden in recent months,” speculated Jon Allsop, a writer for Columbia Journalism Review.
“That not only means that there’s more coverage that administration officials don’t like flying around; the coverage has also provided grist to liberal media critics, whose work then seems to get the attention of top people.”
Such stories critical of the media are often passed around by senior administration officials, including White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who was among the first to share Milbank’s lengthy critique.
Klain and other senior officials have their share of defenders.
Democrats taken Biden’s side over what many see as the media’s tendency to create false equivalence between the goings on of the Trump administration – where chaos and rampant fighting appeared to be the norm – and the more congenial atmosphere the new White House is trying to create.
Klain, one of Biden’s closest confidants, has become a point of fascination among many political journalists, who point to his frequent retweets as proof that he’s paying attention to the various angles being crafted out of the day’s news.
Klain choosing to promote the critical Post column brought extra attention to the tensions that had existed behind the scenes for some months.
In an attempt to draw attention to his agenda, Biden last week delivered remarks about the November jobs numbers, which the White House embraced as evidence of an ongoing economic recovery from the pandemic.
But the president’s comments were overshadowed by his hoarse voice, which he ultimately attributed to a cold.
“From the president coughing or what air-buds the vice president uses, there has been this barrage of frankly, unimportant high-school tabloid-style garbage,” said Kurt Bardella, an adviser for multiple Democratic committees and a frequent guest on cable news programs.
“All-the-while, the Republican Party is working every single day to literally end democracy as we know it,” he said.
The momentary frustration carried over to some in the White House, who were angry that Biden’s health dominated that afternoon’s press conference. During the briefing, several reporters asked about the president’s cold and his testing regimen for COVID-19. The jobs report went largely ignored.
“There’s a proclivity to act like something isn’t news if it’s not negative… For example, if jobs numbers are disappointing, they tend to get a lot of coverage, demonstrating that the press sees jobs numbers as a significant topic,” a White House official told The Hill. “So it would stand to reason that positive jobs numbers are also newsworthy.”
Beyond daily annoyances, some in the White House and their boosters also believe the press corps has overcorrected to take an overly hostile approach to the new administration after four years of Trump, who frequently berated reporters as the “enemy of the people” and dismissed their coverage as “fake news.”
They argue the media, seeing diminishing returns post-Trump, has propped up coverage of Biden that is disproportionately negative compared to the last administration, which ended with unfounded claims of voter fraud, a raging pandemic and an insurrection at the Capitol.
“Everyone wants to push for more favorable coverage,” said Eric Schultz, a former deputy press secretary in the Obama White House, who argued the tendency to embrace harsh storylines has only grown.
“What I think distinguishes what’s happening right now is the acceleration of the financial pressures and what that means for coverage,” Schultz said. “There’s no mystery that the financial model incentivizes outrage and negativity.”
Outside observers, however, see the process as less polarized and more of a give-and-take.
Some note that while the media landscape after Trump still needs repairing, it’s also incumbent on Team Biden to provide basic components of relationship building that encourage a better working dynamic.
White House reporters have openly lobbied for Biden to hold more press conferences and make himself more available for questions, a plea that press aides dismiss as not substantive. They counter that their boss regularly gaggles at the end of public events.
“They don’t want to have the same relationship that the Trump administration had, and I don’t think they do,” said Victor Pickard, a media critic and professor at Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
“But perhaps the Biden administration needs to make itself more available to the press and really try and facilitate dialogue instead of being in a defensive posture.”
That is especially pertinent now, some say, due to multiple ongoing crises that have lingered even as the power centers of Washington have changed hands.
The mutual goal, Pickard said, should be to “try to pull down this adversarial relationship” on the side of Biden, and, for those who cover him, “try to gently steer the press towards looking at this bigger picture, looking at what’s good for democratic society.”